Japan Quietly Playing a Growing Role in Central Asia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 71

Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the "Central Asia + Japan" format via Embassy of the Republic of Tajikistan in the Federal Republic of Germany

When the role of outside powers in Central Asia is considered, Japan is often not among them—despite the fact that it has a unique advantage which has opened the way to considerable success in the areas where Tokyo has employed it. It is an Asian country and can present itself as one with the region; at the same time, it is an economic success story and embodies Western capitalistic and democratic values. As a result, Japan often can promote those values more effectively than Western countries precisely because Japan is viewed by many Central Asians as one of their own, rather than an outsider (for exceptions to the general neglect of Japan’s role in Central Asia, see in particular Timur Dadabaev, Japan in Central Asia (London, 2016); EDM, September 14, 2021; and CyberLeninka, 2022). Moreover, because Japan has focused on smaller “soft power” projects rather than major geopolitical moves, it generally has been able to avoid conflicts with the two largest players in the region, China and the Russian Federation. Japan has even maintained cooperative relations with both of these powers, a pattern that many in the region itself welcome, while promoting its own goals and helping the countries of Central Asia to move toward more democratic political arrangements (CyberLeninka, 2018; Academia, 2016).

Japan has been able to do these things not only because it presents itself as an Asian power but also because it is the third largest economy in the world and thus can put money behind the projects it chooses to support. Tokyo has also been successful because it has been conceptually flexible to a degree many have not fully appreciated. Japan, not China, for example, was the first to use the term “new silk road” to discuss east-west cooperation with Central Asian countries (Silk Road Studies, December 2008). It has been a pioneer in treating the region as a whole, holding more five-plus-one meetings than almost any other state, rather than focusing on one or another country and sparking tensions in the region as some other outside powers have done (ResearchGate, January 2013; SageJournals, August 29, 2022). Japan has developed programs that help people on the ground both by addressing their immediate humanitarian and economic needs and that attract more than 100 Central Asians each year to study in Japan, allowing people from the region to acquire Japanese variants of Western ideas on humanitarian assistance and development (Vestnik MGIMO-Universiteta, 2020; CyberLeninka, 2022).

In an important new article, Marina Dmitriyeva, a specialist on international relations at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, provides a comprehensive examination of Japan’s position vis-à-vis Central Asia (CyberLeninka, 2022). She argues that “Tokyo’s activity in the region is characterized not so much by bold initiatives as by the gradual development of practical projects, mostly focused on economic issues,” adding that “Japan presents itself as an alternative to China and Russia for the countries of Central Asia.” Tokyo’s soft power policies seek to provide both immediate help in the development of schools and transportation infrastructure even as they promote “liberal values,” while recognizing “the special importance of Japan’s common Asian identity with the countries of the region.”

When Japan first began to develop relations with the countries of Central Asia in the 1990s, Dmitriyeva says, Tokyo strove in the first instance to “disseminate in the region the ideas of liberalism, democracy and human rights.” That still forms part of the core goals of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) which oversees all of Japan’s efforts there; but after Tokyo failed to make the breakthroughs in these human rights areas that it expected, the Russian scholar says, “Tokyo revised its approach and began to stress economic and humanitarian cooperation instead, having more soberly assessed its possibilities.” Because of this change, Tokyo’s actions in Central Asia have proven less problematic not only for the regimes in Central Asia but also as far as Moscow and Beijing are concerned as well. Indeed, some in Moscow are now inclined to speak of an implicit Russian-Japanese “partnership” for the region (Russian Council, June 20, 2017).

Among the most important projects Japan has carried out in the last several years are: the modernization of three local airports in Uzbekistan and central ones in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and the construction of local and regional rail lines, including in Turkmenistan, a country which until very recently was chary about allowing any outsiders to get involved in development given its much-ballyhooed constitutionally mandated neutrality. At the same time, and attracting more attention while perhaps not being as significant, Tokyo has promoted both traditional Japanese culture and more modern forms like anime throughout the region, something that has prompted many Central Asians to study Japanese and some to visit Japan either as tourists or researchers. At the very least, these traditions carry with them a very different set of messages than those being delivered by China and Russia.

One measure of how serious Japan’s effort in Central Asia has become is that JICA currently maintains representative offices in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and a smaller contact office in Kazakhstan. These offices both oversee the arrival of Japanese experts to these countries and the dispatch of more than 100 Central Asians to Japan—a small number to be sure, but one likely to have growing influence over time. In Tajikistan, the development agency says that it is now working on 32 projects with a total value of $341 million. The figures for the other four countries in the region are comparable.

According to Dmitriyeva, “at present, Japan’s policy in Central Asia is based to a great extent on numerous programs of supporting development, cultural diplomacy and humanitarian assistance,” all things few are going to support. But other Russian commentators are suspicious of Japan’s motives and actions there, given that it is an ally of the United States and an opponent of Putin’s war in Ukraine (Vestnik MGIMO-Universiteta, 2020; Journal RAN, September 18, 2020). It is likely some in Beijing are equally suspicious. And that could lead to conflicts between Tokyo and these two powers; for the time being, however, Japan is quietly expanding its influence in Central Asia, a development likely to have long-term consequences even if it is currently largely ignored in the West.